Iraqis grapple with post-war radioactivity

Iraq's ministry of health launched a survey Thursday to look for radiation sickness.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Salaam Kadhim had no idea what he would find last April, when he and three thieving friends breached the walls of Iraq's nuclear facility at Tuwaitha, as the regime of Saddam Hussein collapsed.

What they found were countless barrels full of radioactive uranium powder, known as "yellowcake." They emptied the barrels to use them as water cisterns at home - and then had a taste.

"I thought it was milk powder," Mr. Kadhim recalls in his village on the edge of Tuwaitha, 15 miles southeast of Baghdad. "But when we poured it out, it made us dizzy. It tasted very bitter."

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While Kadhim says he has had no lasting health problems resulting from his part in the comprehensive looting of Tuwaitha, reports of symptoms of radiation sickness - and fear of contamination from looted goods - persist in local neighborhoods.

Such concerns have led Iraq's new health ministry to launch Thursday a two-month survey of 5,000 residents near Tuwaitha. Iraqis will be brought to a nearby hospital in groups of 75 to 100 daily, to undergo a battery of tests.

"It is serious, there is a real problem, but we don't know how big or the long-term reach," says Yasin Kamil, director of the Al Medaan Hospital, where the survey will be conducted. "There are only suspected cases, but it needs a specialist team to diagnose precisely."

American military radiation experts - arriving in the midst of sharp criticism of US forces for not preventing the looting of such a sensitive site - visited some affected villages two weeks ago. Though the results of their work is yet to be publicized, US officials in the past have downplayed the risk.

Col. Tim Madere, the officer in charge of coalition forces' nuclear-weapons search teams, in May rejected assertions that locals were suffering severe ill health as a result of contaminated equipment from Tuwaitha - or that missing material could be used by terrorists to make a powerful radiological weapon, according to The Washington Times.

He acknowledged in the same interview, however, that "there is still a potential health hazard."

Iraqi doctors say that complaints of radiation effects are proving difficult to track down, much less to diagnose. The aim of the new survey, they say, is threefold: to alert people to the dangers; to determine if there are any real cases of radiation poisoning; and to allay popular Iraqi fears.

Iraqi radiation specialists and other experts will be part of the team, which received orders from the health ministry on July 5. Several are deeply skeptical of local claims.

Combating ignorance of the risks is a key element in rural villages where some Iraqis complain of itchiness, nosebleeds, vomiting, and other problems that they link to turning yellowcake barrels and other looted goods into household items.

"Iraqi families are very afraid ... but the people are ignorant and don't believe it is harmful," says Said Mutar al-Musawi, a religious leader in the village of Wardiyeh, adjacent to Tuwaitha's high walls, from whence many looters came. "Having water is more important than [the dangers of] something that doesn't touch them. Some people have drunk from barrels, and washed with them."

While US military radiological experts have surveyed some areas, the United Nations and activist organizations are expressing concern that Iraq's occupiers are, if not deliberately minimizing the risks, limiting their ability to independently examine the impact.

"We have expressed our concern loudly ... as we heard about the looting, and our awareness of the tons and tons of nuclear material at Tuwaitha," says Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN-chartered nuclear watchdog in Vienna.

The US military permitted an IAEA survey team to make an accounting of Iraq's previously declared nuclear material in May, in keeping with the IAEA's mandate. But the US severely restricted IAEA movements in Iraq, and "did not take us up on our offer" to examine local contamination, or security of radioactive sources, Ms. Fleming says.

Though such sources - found in X-ray machines and other specialized equipment - are normally the responsibility of governments, the IAEA's weapons inspection experience in Iraq meant that before the war it had a complete inventory of more than 1,000 sources.

Some 400 of those sources were at Tuwaitha, but the IAEA says it now has "no sense and no way of knowing," about the fate of those sources," adds Fleming, noting that the IAEA gave the US a listing. "All we can say is we hope steps were taken to control them."

A team of activists from the antinuclear group Greenpeace is at work in some of the neighborhoods most affected by looting at Tuwaitha, though it says it has found little definitive evidence of radiation sickness. Still, Greenpeace says it has found several radioactive sources in houses, including one irradiating at 10,000 times normal levels.

"If this happened in Europe or anywhere in the West, they would have shut down whole villages, closed streets, tested people and the environment for contamination, and done a big clean-up," says Rianne Teule, a Dutch radiation specialist with Greenpeace. "We've seen parts of the reactor building lying in fields more than six miles away."

In an effort to bring back some of the 500 or so yellowcake barrels that disappeared, the US military began a "buy back" program, which paid Iraqis $3 for each barrel handed over. But activists from Greenpeace found that the market price to replace such a barrel is $15, and so estimated that 150 barrels remained in circulation, held by people unwilling to part with their "new" water cistern.

On June 28, Greenpeace began exchanging 100 clean barrels. The first day they collected 12 barrels that were contaminated with traces of yellowcake.

The team has found pieces of metal in houses that they say "look like nothing," but are emitting radiation locally at potentially dangerous levels.

While concern over health problems is widespread, there are few concrete cases that can be found. And few people are open about their looting.

Dr. Jaafar Nasir Suhayb, for example, at the Al Medaan Hospital, suspects several cases could have been related to radiation sickness. Intifat Ressam, 13, has been experiencing severe nosebleeds, often several a day, and shortness of breath since she washed the clothes of her brother, who was caked in yellow powder from Tuwaitha. For days she did the wash in a container from Tuwaitha, since gotten rid of.

Ms. Ressam's is a case study of how difficult it will be for the health ministry to separate normal health problems among a desperately poor population, from those linked to radiation. While her condition has improved, she said that before the war, she had shortness of breath - and even a nosebleed a day.

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